The Luftwaffe Pilot

He did not want to have a Jewish doctor, so
Mr. Karl Dieter became my patient. I was not
excited to be the only doctor he would see. I
wanted no part of anti-Semitism. 
He was one of sixteen people getting
treatments on a kidney dialysis machine. I went
toward his chair, but stopped short.

He sat in the dialysis recliner. Mr. Dieter was a
big man, still in shape. He made the chair look
small. His white hair was thick, despite his
being nearly eighty years old, and combed
back. He wore an eye patch and an ascot. His
left hand had been amputated a long time ago,
leaving a gnarled, petrified stump.

“I’m Dr. Larco. I should warn you, sir, that my
mother was Jewish.”

He ignored my statement and said, “It is a
pleasure to meet you, Doctor.” His English was
perfect; his accent, German.

“This is your first treatment on the kidney

“Yes, I think of it as a test flight.”

“You look calm.”

“I am. Calm and faith are the only things that
can save you.”

“Faith in God?” I asked. This was getting
serious and personal very fast.

“Faith in myself. The Torah says ‘If God had
loved us he wouldn’t have made us.’”

“Do you believe that?”


“You read the Torah?”

“I read everything.”

“You’re not frightened?”

“No, I’ve been in worse situations. I’ve had
people trying to kill me. You are trying to save
my life.”

“When did people try to kill you?”

“During the Second World War. I was a
Luftwaffe pilot.”

“You saw combat?”

“Too much.”

“How did you lose your eye?”

“Shot down by the Brits.”

“How did you lose your hand?”

“Shot down again. This time by the Americans.”

“They let you fly with one eye?”

“The doctor was my friend.”

“If he was your friend, he should have
grounded you.”

“I could fly the jet. At the end there weren’t
many pilots left, especially ones who could fly
the jet.”

“Were you a…”

“I was not a Nazi. I loved to fly airplanes. I was
nineteen when I was first shot down. I knew
nothing about politics. I was defending my
homeland. I was twenty-two when I went down
in the jet. I lost my hand. I fought in the air,
removed from it all. There was no swastika
painted on my plane. I didn’t record the planes
I shot down on my jet. I believed I was a
Teutonic Knight, only I flew an airplane rather
than rode a horse. I wore a silk scarf my
mother gave me.”

“When did you come to the States?”

“After the war the Americans snatched me. I
became an instructor. I taught the Americans
how to pilot a jet.”

“You never returned?”

“My family was killed at Dresden. The Germany
I believed in never existed.”

His lip quivered momentarily; then he

“Mr. Dieter, I’ll see you on Wednesday.”

“Good-bye, Doctor.”

I recalled the American war veterans who were
my patients. One old fellow came into the
emergency room when I was an intern. He was
in heart failure. We stabilized him, and upon
learning he was a veteran, we shipped him to
the VA hospital. We didn’t need another
demented old man using the service. A few
hours later the man was brought back to the ER
with a note pinned to a VA hospital gown
stating, “This man fought in World War I, for
the Germans. The old gomer is yours. Nice try.”

Years later another man told me while I was
examining him that he had been a medic during
World War II. I was interested in the medical
aspects. “What could be done in the field for a
patient in the 1940s?” I asked.

“Not much. Just give them morphine and hold
their hand while they died. But the worst thing
I had to do was write letters to the mothers of
the boys who died. It should have been the job
of the second lieutenant, but he couldn’t do it.
So I wrote the letters.”

“That’s terrible,” I said.

“It got worse. When we liberated the
concentration camps we had to sort through the
stacks of bodies to see if any were still alive.”

“Were any alive?”

“We found a few.” He started to cry.

Mr. Dieter was my first exposure to a veteran of
the Nazi army.

He did not return for treatment on Wednesday
and he skipped Friday. On Monday when he
skipped, I was curious and concerned. I made a
home visit.

I rang the doorbell. An elderly woman met me
at the door. She was stout, sturdy, and looked
very healthy for a woman of her age. Her hair
was white and pulled back. She wore red
lipstick. She was old, but I could see that she
had once been very pretty.

“Mrs. Dieter, your husband can’t skip dialysis
treatments; he’ll die.”

“I know; come and see him. He’s in the

Mr. Dieter was in bed. He was alert, though his
breathing was labored.

“Mr. Dieter, if you don’t get dialysis, you’ll die.”

He looked me in the eye. “Yes, and it’s okay. I
have been thinking. You see, Doctor, when I
flew I was in control. On your machine I’m a
passenger. I’ve never been a passenger. It’s
like you being a patient. The idea must be
abhorrent to you.”

“We’ll all be patients someday.”

“I look at you, Doctor, and I get the sense you
wouldn’t go through what your patients go

His comments were piercing. I don’t know if I
would go through what my patients had to
endure. I knew too much.

“Mr. Dieter, can I ask you something?”

“Go ahead.”

“They say you did not want a Jewish doctor.

“It reminds me of what my country did. I helped
defend that. I’m embarrassed.”

“It’s been over sixty years.”

“Every morning when I wake up my first
thought is that I’m getting in my jet fighter.
The memories are always with me. They’re not
even memories. Living dependent on your
machine is something I can’t do. But I thank

Mrs. Dieter led me to the door. I noticed an old
black and white photograph. “Was this his

“Yes, they all died in Dresden—the firebombing.”

There was another photograph, same style and
vintage, next to the Dieter family portrait.

“This portrait?”

“My family—they all died in Poland.”

“By the Russians?”

“No, the Germans—at Auschwitz.”

I noticed her father wore a yarmulke and two
little boys also in yarmulkes must have been
her brothers. She was young, but older than
the two boys, and held an ancient tennis racket.
Her mother, who was pretty, held a violin.


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